Henry VIII has gone down in history as the king who enjoyed lopping off his wives’ heads. But new research is suggesting that the violent and erratic Tudor’s behavior was caused by the same injury that is befalling football players today — traumatic brain injury.
In his youth, Henry VIII was a handsome womanizer who loved a good joust. He was also even-tempered, healthy, and known for his wise military and policy decisions, Phys.org reported.
But something changed somewhere along the line, turning the “vigorous, generous and intelligent youth” into a “cruel and petty tyrant in old age,” who was grossly overweight, had a nasty temper, forgetful, rash, and couldn’t finish his (ahem) royal duties in the bedroom.
A behavioral neurologist at Yale University, Dr. Arash Salardini, led a team of researchers in combing through historical documents to chronicle Henry VIII’s behavior and his lifetime of injuries to pinpoint a cause for this dramatic shift in his personality.
Dr. Salardini uncovered the unexpected, he told History Extra.
“I thought [Henry] was a man with personality disorder, possibly narcissistic with sociopathic tendencies who had some form of mood disorder later on his life and took it out on his subjects. That is not what I ended up finding… The picture was so consistent with the sequel of chronic concussion, intellectual honesty would dictate writing about traumatic brain injury in Henry.”
The Tudor king suffered a series of blows to the head in his younger years, similar to that experienced by modern-day football players. Researchers found two severe head injuries in historical records, both sustained by Henry VIII during jousting tournaments and both during his 30s, Live Science reported.
The first occurred in 1524, when a lance pierced the visor of the king’s helmet during a tournament; he was reportedly “dazed.” Just a year later, he suffered a much worse injury when he fell head-first into a brook while trying to jump across with a pole while out hunting.
Things may have gotten much worse in 1536. That year, Henry VIII was in another jousting tournament, and during an accident, a horse fell on him and he blacked out for two hours. This blow to the head may have triggered his change in behavior.
The historical record of Henry VIII’s character read like a list of symptoms for traumatic brain injury: memory problems, impulse control, explosive anger, headaches, insomnia, and depression, even his impotence and weight gain.
Henry VIII had a slew of health problems, including serious blood infections, skin infections, and weight gain that shot his BMI from an estimated 26 in his youth to a whopping 50 by his death at age 55. Many theories have been put forth over the years to explain these maladies, diabetes, hypothyroidism, Cushing’s, and psychosis among them. None of them fit, but traumatic brain injury does.
Head trauma can even explain Henry VIII’s immense girth and troubles in the bedroom (which Anne Boleyn, whom he later beheaded, reportedly made fun of). Traumatic brain injury occasionally causes a deficiency in growth hormone and causes hypogonadism, which may have caused Henry VIII’s metabolic syndrome and impotence, respectively.
And his tendency to chop off his wives’ heads.
Besides that violent habit, Henry VIII is also famous for his spat with the Catholic Church when, overcome with desire for Ann Boleyn, he tried to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Henry VIII got his way, and the matter created the English Reformation and the Church of England.
Ultimately, Henry VIII married six times, executing two of those unlucky wives by the time he was done.
“It is intriguing to think that modern European history may have changed forever because of a blow to the head,” Salardini said.
[Image via chrisdorney/Shutterstock]